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Learning on the fast track

Lewis gives skiers Sugarbush thrills

WARREN, Vt. -- Skiing with Doug Lewis at Sugarbush the other day reminded me of some of the exploits of the late George Plimpton, who wrote about his experiences as an amateur playing various sports at the major league level.

Lewis is all about the major leagues of skiing. At 39, he still skis with the speed and perfect form that put him on two Olympic downhill teams and won him the bronze medal at the Alpine World Championships in Bormio, Italy, in 1995.

So if it seems that our 40-mile-per-hour ramble through the sweeping "S" turns of Jester is fast, imagine it from the perspective of a ski racer who has experienced 97 m.p.h. To puncuate this point, he lifts off a jump ahead of me and spins a perfect helicopter.

"If I were to go 98 miles an hour," says Lewis, who is co-director of the Sugarbush Ski School and head of its Alpine racing, "I'd feel it in my stomach and get pins and needles. So if you have a new skier who's experienced 7 miles an hour, going 8 gives him the same feeling of really pressing his limit. And it's exciting."

Pressing limits is a theme that "Lewie" and co-director John Egan, famed extreme skier who has appeared in several Warren Miller films, have brought to the Sugarbush program this year. Instead of the lockstep regimentation of the Professional Ski Instructors of America approach, says Lewis, a Middlebury alumnus who spent his formative years at nearby Green Mountain Valley School, instructors at Sugarbush encourage skiers to participate in their learning.

"We ask you what you want to learn today, rather than putting people in boxes and angles," says Lewis. "We try to bring back the idea that it's cool to be good and have people come back from a lesson saying, `Woo, I just pushed my limits out there.' "

The terrain at Sugarbush ranks the mountain with the handful of top mountains in the Northeast, with offerings ranging from long rolling "groomers," as Lewis calls them, to steep and gnarly bump runs -- Stein's Run (named for the legendary Stein Eriksen) is one of the most challenging bumpers anywhere -- to some truly wicked natural terrain in Castle Rock and Paradise.

And there is one more feature, a ledge called Church, named by the onetime ski bum-turned-ski coach Egan, who has made the 25-foot leap off it probably more than anyone else. "We named it Church," says Egan, "because we used to climb up there religiously to ski it."

Like Lewis, Egan brings an infectious high energy to his skiing and imparts it both to skiers in classes and to the instructors whom the two men mold for the Sugarbush style.

"In skiing," says Egan, a Boston native whose grandfather, Fred Gillis, once served as superintendent of the city's schools, "we are so worried about looking good we do not use our energy, but we're fighting it. If you come with an approach that's stagnant, you screw up the flow. The old teaching technique, to my mind, breaks down what muscles you're using when you take a step. And you don't teach people to walk by telling them to flex their thigh or release their calf.

"And in skiing that sounds really dumb. We should start with the things we already know. How to run, jump, skip, dance. And then we go from there and learn to use the energy we have, and learn to run our butts down the hill."

Lewis and Egan try not to break skiing or riding into distinct parts -- groom cruising, bumps, ice, racing. "Good skiing is good skiing," says Lewis. "It's all the same motion. There's no separate ice technique, say. If you're centered on your skis and getting into the flow, the same principles apply no matter where you are on the mountain."

As he travels around the mountain, Lewis will stop at an ongoing lesson and butt in with his enthusiastic chatter to the kids. At one group, where the kids are being instructed to line up, raise their hand, and yell, "I'm in line," he yells it out himself. When kids yell back, "You're not in line," he makes a quick leap in the air off his poles, spins, and tucks down neatly beside them in line.

"We want people to be passionate about skiing here," Lewis says. "They should have a passion to push their limits and pursue their ski dreams. That's what the school should be about."

The Sugarbush school aims at skiers at all levels, from first-timers to serious NASTAR racers to riders in the terrain park. Lewis and Egan are working on devising an award recognizing a sort of new age skimeister or rider, someone who can prove proficiency in every area of the sport.

"The gold medal," says Lewis, "would put together things like winning a NASTAR gold, landing a 360 [degree jump], and skiing Stein's Run nonstop. We want to bring back that it's cool to be excellent, and give people something to strive for."

Lewis and Egan rose in the ski world via very different routes. While Lewis was an academy-trained racer whose love for downhill speed propelled him to the World Cup, Egan pursued the challenges of the back country and cut an image for generations of new skiers, as he was seen leaping off cliffs, barreling down powder chutes and through the thick outback.

In their younger years, each had heroes who motivated him to the top of the ski world. For Egan, it was French extreme skier Patrick Valencant and others at a far end of the sport that was becoming popular in the '70s. "Meeting my childhood heroes just opened my mind," says Egan, "and allowed me to learn to do the kinds of things they do."

Lewis also undertands the role of heroes in development. The Mahre brothers and Billy Kidd played that role for him, but there was a moment that will always be with him. At the World Cup in Aspen in the early '80s, Lewis had just made the top seed, and as the racers were waiting to take their first training runs, it was the Kaiser himself, Austrian Franz Klammer, who came over and congratulated him.

"He was the legend of downhill then, and this was his way of saying welcome to the club," says Lewis. "It really meant a lot to a young ski racer. One thing John and I want to do is share these stories and the whole history and culture of skiing."

They are mindful of these heroes now as they try to impress on instructors and skiers the need to break with some old traditions. "We're not trying to put down PSIA and the old ways," says Lewis, "but just try to get people to look inward and shift the focus of learning back to the fun and passion of our sport."

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